Inside France’s ‘Air Cocaine’ Scandal
PARIS—Dubbed the “Air Cocaine Affair,” the scandal that dominated French headlines before the tragic terrorist attacks on Nov. 13 reads like it could have sprung from the pages of an Ian Fleming novel, and while more urgent matters have since seized public attention, this saga of sleaze and politics goes on.
In late October, two French pilots facing 20-year sentences for flying 26 suitcases of cocaine into the Dominican Republic mysteriously fled that Caribbean nation for their Gallic homeland.
Pilot Pascal Fauret and co-pilot Bruno Odos were convicted, along with two other French nationals, of smuggling 680 kilograms — three-quarters of a ton — of cocaine aboard a Dassault Falcon 50 jet in March of 2013. Their lawyers argued that the men were unaware of their contraband cargo. A pending appeal spared them from directly reporting to jail to begin their sentences, but leaving the country was off limits. That’s where things get interesting.
The shadowy circumstances under which the pair escaped the Dominican Republic reportedly involved a speedboat, a 16-strong entourage—including a far-right politician—and a covert trip to the Franco-Dutch island of Saint Martin in what the French media called a “meticulously planned escape.”
“The two pilots left under the pretext of taking a little boating trip with a former navy commander and a French politician,” Le Point reported on Oct. 26. “During the outing, they were intercepted by a larger vessel carrying the rest of the group. They spent several days at sea, before reaching Saint Martin.”
Fauret and Odos then hopped a plane to France, where they were taken into custody a few days later. French authorities reportedly have no intention of extraditing the pair to the Dominican Republic, and insist that the government didn’t play a role in the pilots’ unauthorized departure.
However, reports linking two far-right party members to the escape suggest that at the very least the pilots had some friends in high places. National Front members Aymeric Chauprade and Pierre Malinowski were in the Dominican Republic with the pilots when they absconded. A Nov. 2 article in Le Monde reported that Malinowski, a onetime assistant to National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, was on board the boat that helped carry the two pilots to freedom.
Chauprade, a European deputy for the National Front, played an even larger role. In an interview with Paris Match, Chauprade described how he helped orchestrate the operation, dubbed “Dinner in the City,” explaining that two teams were involved: one to ferret the pilots out of the area under the “pleasure boat” ruse, and another to help get them to France.
“I headed Team One,” Chauprade told Paris Match, saying that he had been on the boat with the pilots and that “generous donors” had funded the mission. While Chauprade also denied the French government’s involvement in the escape, he did suggest he had tacit support.
“The state didn’t criticize my actions,” he told the magazine.
Perhaps not, but the National Front was none too pleased. On Nov. 9, less than two weeks after his revelations, Chauprade abruptly resigned from the party. Initially he cited ideological reasons for his departure, only to later admit that his involvement in the Air Cocaine scandal would have led to his expulsion. “I had to shoot first,” he said.
Indeed, a tweet from current party head Marine Le Pen all but confirms that the National Front was about to show Chauprade the door.
"The Air Cocaine Affair indicates that our differences with Chauprade had become too great and his remaining in the National Front impossible,” Le Pen said.
Adding to the bizarre tale are recent reports linking former President Nicolas Sarkozy to the scandal.
According to Le Journal du Dimanche, the French judge in charge of the investigation had Sarkozy’s cellphones traced between March and April of 2013, which coincides with the discovery of the cocaine haul. The judge also examined records of the ex-president's cellphone communications between 2013 and 2014. No link was found between Sarkozy and the cocaine shipment.
The former president hit back at the report, claiming he was investigated solely because he used the airline company implicated in the case.
“What I want to know is, what could justify an investigating magistrate taking such measures solely because I used the same airline?” Sarkozy told Le Parisien in a Nov. 3 interview.
“What do they think I did, fly to Punta Cana with 700 kilos of cocaine?”
In the meantime, the fugitive pilots continue to maintain their innocence and are hoping to face the French courts instead of the Dominican justice system they left behind. The two remain in temporary custody in France after appearing before a Marseille court on Nov. 18 to appeal their detention; the next day, the court ruled against releasing them.
“They left a country where justice doesn’t exist, they were not trying to flee the law,” their lawyer told BFMTV on Oct. 27.
Indeed, while they may have escaped the Dominican Republic’s justice system with their James Bond-like bid for freedom, whether they will become free men in their own country remains to be seen.